Forward momentum

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Hundreds of industry pros gathered to discuss the changing nature of retail, shifting demographics and the future of the industry at the 2022 Garden Center Conference & Expo.

photo © Christie’s Photographic Solutions

As the industry continues to change at a rapid pace, it’s more important than ever for independent garden centers to learn, grow and take advantage of the expanding market. Garden center owners, operators and managers came together in Orlando Aug. 1-3 to do just that, all while reconnecting with each other, learning about new products and solutions, and getting expert advice.

Over two and a half days, Garden Center Conference & Expo attendees had the chance to hear from some of the best and brightest in the industry. Here are a few of the insights they took home to their teams:

Rob Sproule, co-owner of Salisbury and founder of DIG Marketing
Photos © Christie’s Photographic Solutions

The new normal

COVID has pushed the IGC customer demographic to change at an incredibly rapid rate, said Rob Sproule, co-owner and marketing director at Salisbury Greenhouse in Edmonton, Alberta. And with that shift in consumers, your marketing needs to evolve as well.

“Millennials are Superman to traditional marketing. It bounces right off of them,” he said during his session, The New Normal: Adapting The Traditional Garden Center Model To Fit Today’s Customers.

Instead, millennials respond to marketing that focuses on telling your story and purpose. Use your ‘why’ to tell a story, Sproule said. The way you tell the story will change, but your ‘why’ never will.

Capturing that millennial market is crucial, Sproule said. While boomers still make up the majority of independent garden center sales, but they’re on the decline. “You’ve got to hold onto boomers and build on millennials,” Sproule said.

No matter what strategies you try, it’s important to remember that marketing works when you’re in it for the long game. What doesn’t work is trying a variety of different things without giving them a chance to land, he said. Start with a goal. Is it customer count, brand recognition, building community or something else?

For example, blogging is a long game. It’s not about drawing customers in for the weekend; it’s about developing a website that will be a resource for your customers for years to come.

AJ Petitti, president of Petitti Garden Centers

Expert education

Positioning yourself as a local gardening expert is all about three core factors, said AJ Petitti, president of Petitti Garden Centers with nine locations in Ohio.

  • Localization: Being local or hyper-local matters
  • Reputation: Builds valuable comfort and confidence in the community
  • Differentiation: Sets you apart from the big-box plant retailers

Petitti provides localized garden information in several ways, which has built the name into one of the most recognizable local brands in its area.

Angelo Petitti, founder and owner of the company, has been hosting the radio show “Gardening with Angelo” since the 1980s It’s available on local radio as well as on-demand via the Petitti website and iHeart podcasts. And AJ does two local TV spots: Dig This on Wednesday mornings and Mark’s Garden on Saturday and Wednesday. He even has his own sample garden on the Fox 8 property where he does live segments each spring for Dig This.

Beyond that, the Petitti YouTube channel features timely how-to videos and the company sends out weekly releases through its website, e-blasts, social media and organic SEO.

From left: Jessica Castillo, left, Liz Lark-Riley, Devon Klingman and Brendan Hayes-Morrison from Rockledge Gardens

As part of its in-store education, Petitti plants all come with their own tags with information specific to customers’ climates. “Those plant tags are specific to Northeast Ohio,” Petitti said. “They’re a good tool for customers, but they’re a great tool for employees.”

Having a gardening guide of how-to information also builds customer success. Personalizing plant care information is crucial, as keeping it regional. If a plant grows 2 to 10 feet, that information isn’t particularly helpful to gardeners. Find out how the plant grows in your area and include that area-specific information.

“It’s a great reference point for young gardeners, new gardeners and employees,” Petitti said.

At the end of the day, education is a “slow drip,” Petitti said. “It’s really something that builds over time.”

Dr. Bridget Behe, professor of horticultural marketing at Michigan State University

Retail as theater

You want to captivate an audience at your garden center, and that starts with setting the stage, said Liz Lark-Riley, managing director of Rockledge Gardens, during her session, Story-Telling Tips From A Theater Nerd: How Retail Is Theater And It’s Time To Play!

“What story are you silently telling the moment someone sets eyes on your IGC?” she asked. “Do whatever you can to delight your customers from the very beginning.”

Your customers come to your store with goals in mind, but they don’t necessarily know what plants are going to meet those goals. That’s why you’ve got to help them see solutions in the store.

Consultant John Kennedy emphasized the need for value-based decison planning during his session, “The One-Hour Strategic Plan.”
photos © Christie’s Photographic Solutions

The price is right

Price is an indication that something has value. “A big part of the burden is on us to demonstrate the value,” said Dr. Bridget Behe, professor of horticultural marketing at Michigan State University, during her session, Consumer Psychology: How They Think Influences What They Buy. “We tend to make price the headline and that diminishes all the other benefits and values.”

She recommends that garden centers focus on what plants can do before price information. For example, focus on the impacts of plants on both physical and mental health. “This is way better than medication,” she said.

Value-based decisions

Consultant John Kennedy shared that 46% of businesses don’t have a written out strategic plan shared with their management teams during his session, The One-Hour Strategic Plan. What’s more, 25% of companies do not have core value mission statements in writing nor shared. Is your business one of them? If so, Kennedy shared an outline that retailers can use to get started, and it begins with value-based decision making.

There are many values IGCs can focus on, ranging from fun to integrity to family, growth and anything in between. Retailers should choose three values important to their company’s ethos and mission, starting with ‘why.’ Kennedy recommended that IGCs should start with the ‘why,’ then the ‘what’ followed by the ‘how.’

Employees also need to feel valued. Kennedy shared that 38% of businesses had no formal evaluation method, which is crucial for employee accountability. To create a stronger strategic plan, retailers must understand people vs. process and inspire them to set their own purpose-driven goals.

The Garden Center Conference & Expo show floor featured some of the newest and most innovative products on the market.

Think like a plant

Darryl Cheng, creator of the wildly popular Instagram account @houseplantjournal and author of “The New Plant Parent,” stressed the importance of good houseplant marketing tactics, as well as how to give customers useful, practical advice.

Often, plant care instructions can be vague, especially to new plant parents. Plant parents may not always understand these terms and instructions, and there’s a big opportunity for associates to help bridge that knowledge gap, he said.

There’s also an opportunity for retailers to help customers shed the belief that plants are undying, perfectly preserved pieces of décor. Blooms and leaves often have a limited lifespan, and customers must learn that plants change or die over time. This not only manages their expectations, but it can help create a lifelong hobby where customers understand that nature must take its course, he said.

However, the real key to successful houseplant parenthood is dictated by light, he said. Cheng shared just how precise specifications for “low light” and “bright indirect light” need to be when it comes to light requirements because every customer’s dwelling spaces and perceptions for these instructions can greatly differ.

Things like window sizes and the view of possible window obstructions may be small, but they can greatly impact plant health, he said. Customers should think about what their plant sees, and retailers should consider how different light requirements can be in the context of a professional horticulturist vs. an interior designer.